eileenanddogs

Category: Human and dog misunderstandings

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

When I first published this piece in 2014, I had no idea of the firestorm it would create. I thought (and still think) it was a pretty mild critique. It’s an analysis of what Bark Busters’ own written materials say about their training philosophy. They weren’t pleased, though. But it’s still here, and draws a fair amount of traffic. I’ve edited it for clarity and hope it is helpful. —Eileen Anderson, September 2019

A friend recently shared a flyer from Bark Busters, a franchise dog training business. It is called “Barking: The Facts” and can be seen at this link. 

The flyer made me interested so I set out to investigate the methods of this franchise.

The main pages on the Bark Busters website have wording that appeals to the many people who want to get their dogs to behave without hurting or scaring them. Some of the phrases are: 

  • “Positive relationship”
  • “Lasting emotional bond”
  • “Communicate effectively”
  • “Consistency and natural techniques”
  • “Reinforce and strengthen the bond”
  • “Develop pleasant, obedient nature”
  • “Happy lifelong buddy”

But is this consistent with the training methods they use? If we look harder, there are some red flags:

  • “Pack leader”
  • “Transform a problem dog…often in only a matter of hours”
  • “All without treats or the need for harsh punishment”

Hmm, the analyses on how to judge dog trainers by their own business descriptions show that we actually have quite a bit to worry about here.

  • Pack leader is an indicator that most problems will be addressed by rank reduction, usually by the use of harsh aversives. In this kind of “hammer” mindset, even normal puppy annoyances are often treated like nails.
  • Any bragging about short training times with magical transformations is also a big warning. It generally indicates suppression and punishment as well. Trainers who are educated in behavior science know there are many factors out of their control when working with a dog and her family. They don’t make guarantees of magical transformations. They know that success is affected by the dog’s history and the client’s buy-in. This kind of guarantee is almost always made by trainers who will suppress the dog’s behavior through pressure and startling techniques, if not outright painful punishment. This can have the appearance of immediate success, especially in a first visit when the trainer has novelty on his side. Methods for suppressing behavior are conceptually familiar to most of us since we live in a punishment-based culture. They can show immediate, although temporary, results.
  • Without treats? Oh-oh. Food is the main primary reinforcer we have at our disposal. If there are no food or toys in use, behavior change depends on the use of aversives. Don’t get distracted by the red herring of “praise.” Sure, some dogs like praise. Most won’t work nearly as hard for it as they will for a hot dog, though. The focus on praise masks what methods are actually changing behavior: aversive ones. (See the photo below.)
  • Finally, “no harsh punishment” leaves “moderate punishment” on the table. And of course the company is the one defining what constitutes “harsh” punishment. The dog’s opinion might be different.

So don’t be surprised at the tools this franchise teaches people to use. They aren’t tools that help create a lasting emotional bond with a happy lifelong buddy after all. Airhorns, spray bottles, penny cans, and special bags with chains in them to throw. Bark Busters also teaches a special growly way to yell at one’s dog, using the word “Bah!”. This is another red flag, the idea that a particular word or sound has some intrinsic magical power to communicate. 

Note: the round things are not disc toys

The items in the photo above were all collected by a trainer friend who was called to help families who had previously hired Bark Busters.

The disc-shaped things (throwing bags) and the spray bottle have Bark Busters’ logo on them and appear to be provided by the company. The air horns were purchased by Bark Busters’ clients on the advice of Bark Busters’ trainers, and the penny cans were created by the clients on their advice. 

The preceding was a little overview of what we can glean about their methods. But what I’m most interested in is the mixture of information and mythology about barking in the flyer.  

Bark Busters’ Flyer about Barking

The flyer starts out all right, saying that barking can be a sign the dog is stressed. But then in the first bullet point, it says that dogs who bark at “birds, dogs, people, falling leaves, or clouds” are “nuisance barkers.” How very sad for the dogs who are scared of any of those things and are barking out of fear. Especially given the tools above, whose main functions are to startle and scare.

You can be pretty sure that a company bragging about using no treats does not use desensitization/counter conditioning as a training technique. This is the established and most widely accepted treatment for fear in dogs.

There is an interesting subtext to the flyer. It is the idea that dogs can come to distinguish and alert you to true threats to your family. You just have to get rid of the “nuisance” barking first. The flyer includes the following:

As they reach maturity, most dogs will naturally protect their owners when needed and where necessary…

Why, oh why can’t they join the 21st century and learn about dog behavior?

So when the problem behaviors have been removed, you supposedly have a dog who will guard your family. It doesn’t explain how the dog, if he has been punished for barking, will magically know that in a stranger danger situation (and only then), he should bark.

The idea that all dogs can intuitively recognize a threatening human dies hard. I have no doubt there are some dogs who can perceive a real threat from a human. They are way more perceptive than we are in so many ways. And of course, some breeds have been selectively bred for protection.

But that probably isn’t true for Susie the noisy sheltie or Boomer the baying beagle. And any undersocialized dog (and there are tons of them) is going to see threats everywhere. Undersocialized dogs may be as likely to attack a toddler, a man with a beard and hat, or somebody on crutches as they are someone who is threatening actual violence. It’s scary that Bark Busters is promulgating the idea that we should leave it to dogs to decide when aggression might be acceptable.

This is quite amazing, the idea that your dog can learn to be quiet all the time except when a criminal comes to your home. All by your throwing stuff and yelling when he barks.

Another problem is the inclusion of “demand barking,” in the list of problems. Bark Busters fails to point out that demand barking is maintained by the humans who reinforce it. It’s a problem we usually create, whether we know it or not. Dogs do what works. One of the first things I successfully trained my rat terrier Cricket was to stop barking for her meals. After I learned some basics about behavior science, I stopped reinforcing the barking (which was being reinforced by her whole meal!) and started reinforcing her for being quiet. I, a novice trainer, did this in a few sessions over a week’s time. No more demand barking after four years of it. But the idea that we humans need to change our behavior doesn’t fit into the rank reduction model. The result is especially sad. As long as humans don’t become aware of the ways they reinforce barking, the dog will likely receive reinforcement and punishment alternately for the same behavior.

The Biggest Myth

But the biggest myth is the idea that the training methods Bark Busters focus on are benign ones. They are not benign. Using some basic premises about behavior science, one can state some of the likely effects of this casual use of aversives.

If you startle your dog with a throw chain, an air horn, a penny can, or by yelling, “Bah!” as Bark Busters instructs:

  • Your dog may become scared of you;
  • Or (more) scared of the thing they were barking at in the first place;
  • Or scared of the area in which this happened;
  • Or scared of some other random thing that was present when scary things started to happen.
  • Your dog may shut down in general, as you suppress behaviors without teaching alternatives.
  • Your dog may redirect aggression, i.e. bite you or another vulnerable member of your household: a child, a cat, another dog.
  • Your dog may develop a “punishment callus.” This is common. Since very few people really want to hurt or startle their dogs, people usually start out lightly when they use an aversive method. The result is that the aversive must be escalated over time to get the same result. You will eventually reach a limit, either with what you can physically do, or what you are emotionally willing to do, to scare or hurt your dog. Then what? I do have to wonder how many times those throw bags have been thrown at the dogs instead of near them,  no matter what the instructions are.

References on fallout from aversives. 

Oh, and by the way, it’s not just the dog who can get ill effects. If the actions you take successfully interrupt the barking (note that I didn’t say solve it; just interrupt it momentarily):

  • You will be reinforced for using aversives, becoming more likely to do so again;
  • You will likely increase the severity of the interruption as time passes (see above about the punishment callus). Barking is a natural dog behavior and difficult to suppress successfully.

Our best friends deserve better than this.

Note: This post is based on what Bark Busters say about themselves in their promotional materials. You can view the flyer and website yourself. It’s about the tools they promote, and includes information (based on principles of behavior science) about the general, known effects of such tools. I haven’t directly experienced training from Bark Busters and make no claim that I have. 

Related Posts

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

7 Common Dog Training Errors: More Cautionary Tales

7 Common Dog Training Errors: More Cautionary Tales

I have to admit that I likely have a fair number of readers who look forward to reading about my mistakes. But hey, I asked for it, from the very first day of the blog.

My previous post on common dog training errors was very popular and I’m very happy to see it still making the rounds! So here are seven more, five of which I have personally made in spades.

(1) Too much freedom too soon 

The person who should be ashamed is me!
The one who should be ashamed about this is me!

Boy, this is an easy mistake to make. I bet a large percentage of problem behaviors and damaged property (and so-called “dog-shaming” photos) can be linked to this one simple error. Lots of times our hearts overrule our heads. Let’s say you just got a rescue dog. You feel very badly about his history. You work part-time  and you plan to crate him when you go to work. Only problem: he hates the crate. You can’t stand putting him in it the first day you go to work. The idea breaks your heart. He’s sleepy anyway when you get ready to go, so you just leave him loose in the house. You come home to poop in the corner, a chewed carpet, and some overturned plants. What a bad dog! No, he’s just a dog who hasn’t been taught the house rules yet. (Jean Donaldson’s book The Culture Clash explains this heartbreaking misunderstanding about dogs in an unforgettable way. It will change how you look at your patient, long-suffering dog forever.)

When I first got Summer, I had never had a puppy or an active adolescent dog before. I didn’t realize you couldn’t give dogs cardboard to chew on, then expect them to know not to chew up the books that were in a bookcase at floor level. I learned on the fly how to limit Summer’s opportunities to self-reinforce inappropriately, but with my two subsequent dogs I doled out freedom much more carefully from the get-go.

(This is not a how-to post, but in the case of the dog hating the crate, if you have to go somewhere before you have conditioned your dog to love a crate, most would recommend you use an exercise pen to enclose a safe space for him, or gate off the room of the house that is easiest to clear of tempting but forbidden items. And of course, leave him plenty of permissible activities, such as stuffed food toys.)

(2) Value of reinforcement too low

Last time I talked about rate of reinforcement, but what about the value? What if you ask  your dog to run a complete agility course for some kibble?  Or when she finally works up to 30 minutes quiet in the crate, you give her one piece of carrot? Or maybe you are trying not to use food at all, trying to get good results from your dog merely from praise or pats on the head (which are actually punishing for many dogs). No matter how frequently you praise, that just isn’t going to cut it with most dogs.

Chunks of dark meat chicken on a plate, round disks of dog food roll, a ziplock bag with pieces of dog food roll
Yummy stuff!

Food, especially good food, not only motivates your dog, it makes the communication in training crystal clear. When your dog gets a great treat repeatedly for the behavior you want, it makes it very clear to her that this is what pays off. There is no muddy water. If your dog is not responding eagerly in training sessions, check not only your rate of reinforcement, but the quality of it.

I have written about my own experience with Summer, who was highly distracted by her environment and just not really into the work we did. My food reinforcers, though high value, were cut in too small pieces.  Once I rectified that, the nice chunky new treats passed value to training in general and we got over the hump. She is now a training junkie and works eagerly for kibble.

I might also mention, once more, that what is yummy is defined by the dog. I was going to make a photo contrasting chunks of meat with something lower value. I thought of using bread, then remembered that my dog Summer will do anything for white bread. It pays to know these things!

(3) Over-using negative punishment

Negative punishment is defined as follows: Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often. It often takes the form of a penalty or time-out.

Pulling the treat away when Zani moves out of a sit
Pulling the treat away when Zani moves out of a sit

The thing about negative punishment is that it meshes so perfectly with positive reinforcement sometimes. Too perfectly. It’s an easy default method. You start to hand the dog a cookie for staying in position. The dog starts to move out of position to get it, you pull the cookie back. You walk into the room where the puppy is in the crate. She starts to cry when she sees you. Oops! You turn on your heel and walk away. Or how about this one? You are teaching your dog the cups game, where she figure out which cup has the treat under it, then indicate that somehow. She guesses wrong and indicates the wrong cup. You immediately pull both the cups away.

These are all terrifically easy, and often effective ways to train. In all cases there is a penalty for the incorrect behavior, and it is the disappearance of the goodie the dog was  on the cusp of earning.

It surprises some people that negative punishment is at the same level on the Humane Hierarchy as extinction and negative reinforcement. Most trainers are more “OK” with negative punishment than negative reinforcement, but I think Dr. Friedman is telling us that we need to look at each case individually.

Negative punishment is punishment. It suppresses behavior. It can be unpleasant for the learner. It can directly inhibit them from trying stuff. Two of my dogs, Zani and Clara,  tend to shut down very fast if I pull an item away from them because they have taken the wrong action, as in the cups game example above.

I treat my own over-use of negative punishment as a symptom. When I find myself using it or being tempted a lot, I ask myself what it is that I have not sufficiently trained. If my dog is pulling out of position to get a cookie, there were probably holes in our stay practice. If the puppy regularly whines in the crate, I have lumped somewhere.

I’m not sure if this is an error in the same category as the others. It’s more of a value judgment. Negative punishment is still much more humane than some alternatives. But I invite you to look beyond it, whenever you find yourself or your students using it a lot.

(4) Treating in a sub-optimal position or manner

Pulling Cricket out of position for her treat
Pulling Cricket out of position for her treat

Well, there could be a whole treatise here. I am a former expert at this. You can see in this movie about Cricket in her Prime, from the very first scene, that I built into her training a little leap up for the treat in almost all behaviors. Partly because she was small, and partly because she was so intense, and entirely because I didn’t know any better. In the picture to the right, even though I had already clicked, how much better would it have been to treat her down on her mat rather than letting her jump up into the air? The position of your treat delivery can help train the behavior.

Then there’s the difference between throwing, dropping, or handing over treats. Throwing treats is very exciting and fun for lots of dogs. In certain situations it’s perfect for setting up another iteration of what you are practicing and buys you some time. So would you want to do that every time you click your dog for another increment of relaxation if that’s what you were practicing? Probably not. On the other hand, if your dog is slower than you’d like on some rapid-fire behavior, throwing treats for her to chase can amp things up.

And yes, I get the irony between the picture of my deliberately pulling Cricket out of her sit for a treat, and the picture of my pulling the treat away from Zani when she breaks position. Same picture. Hmm, I wonder how Zani learned to break position in the first place…

(5) Making training sessions look like “training” and not real life

Guilty, guilty, guilty. That’s me. This one is similar to “Failure to generalize,” in the last post but it’s more, um general. When you fail to generalize a behavior, a dog knows how to do it in one location or situation, but not another. So once your dog knows “sit” in all sorts of places and situations, is there something more you should do? You bet. Did you have your treat pouch on during all of those sessions? Or have your clicker and a pocketful of treats? Did you cut up the treats just beforehand? In other words, is everything about the situation screaming, “This is a training session?” Then good luck getting Fluffy to sit the first time your best friend comes over and you are having coffee at the kitchen table. It’s not just the possible lack of treats. It’s a completely different situation for your dog.

So first, the food. Your dog needs to learn that she might get a food treat even if she hasn’t seen all the signs of “training session.” One way to do this is to cache little covered containers of treats out of your dogs’  reach around the house and even the yard or your walk route. Casually, outside of a session, ask your dog for a sit. (Start off in the less challenging situation, of course.) Voila: out comes something really good from a jar on top of the bookcase! You can pull treats out of the sky!

Think about what else indicates to your dog that you are about to train? Do you gather up some props? Get your clicker? Put the other dog in a crate? Take your phone out of your pocket? Believe me, whatever the habits are, your dog knows them. So prepare to surprise your dog. Just like with any other training, start simple and raise your criteria. One of the main reasons most people train their dogs is to make them easier to live with. This won’t happen unless you integrate their training into real life.

(6) Clicking or marking without treating

I still see questions about this. “When can I stop treating for every click?” The answer is, “Never.” Although there are a few rarer training systems where one click does not equal one treat, if you are a beginner, forget about them for now. The clicker (or verbal marker if you use that instead) gets its power from being a perfect predictor of good things to come.

Now, it’s perfectly OK to fade the use of the clicker over time. You don’t have to click or mark every single time your dog does what you cue.  And over time, with skill, you can use food less and life rewards more. But if you click, give a treat, unless you just clicked something totally disastrous. One missed pairing out of 100 click/treats will not ruin the meaning of the clicker.* But just remember the look on your dog’s face when you don’t give them the promised treat, and do your best not to make that mistake again. Because clicking the wrong thing was your mistake, not your dog’s.

(7) Too long a delay between the behavior and the consequence: assuming the dog makes a connection when they can’t

I once read on a dog chat forum some comments by a man who was fervently defending punishing a dog when he got home and found out that the dog had done some misdeed–perhaps an elimination problem or the dog tore something up. He was incredulous that anyone would question his punishment; he said, “But dogs have great memories!”

Yes, they certainly do. His dog probably remembered peeing in the corner or how good that shoe tasted. But how exactly is the punishment supposed to be connected to that deed from hours earlier? The dog has performed hundreds of behaviors since then. Showing the dog the pee or the shoe does not connect their earlier action to whatever punishment is being doled out.

Consequences for behavior need to be very close in time to the behavior for behavior change to occur, and not just for dogs. A behavior analyst named Kennon Lattal has been the go-to guy since the 1970s for studying the effect of time delays and intervening events between behaviors and  reinforcers for people and all sorts of animals. In one famous experiment he tried for 40 days (one hour a day)  to shape a pigeon to peck a disk while delaying reinforcement for each behavior for 10 seconds. The pigeon never got there. When he changed the time delay to one second, the bird learned in 15-20 minutes.  (Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, Fifth Edition, 2003, p. 160)

So, actually two lessons about treat timing here: when you are training, deliver those treats (or tennis balls, or whatever) as quickly and efficiently as you can. And in day to day life with your dog, don’t assume that if you give them a goodie or a talking to, that they can associate it with something they did 5 minutes or 5 hours ago.

Any of these strike home with you? Care to share? I can’t be the only one making these mistakes, can I?

This post is part of a series:

Coming Up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

*There are eminent people who say you shouldn’t fail to treat even in this situation, even once.

Is My Dog a Drama Queen?

Is My Dog a Drama Queen?

“My dog is such a drama queen!”

“My dog is so manipulative, she overreacts to everything!”

“That dog is not really afraid, she’s just being a diva.”

Have you heard any of these?

A few months back, I posted the following picture on a Facebook group for comments. Continue reading “Is My Dog a Drama Queen?”

The False Hypothesis of the Pack

The False Hypothesis of the Pack

Hey! “Pack theory” is not a theory at all!

Observations of captive wolves in unnatural groupings led to "pack theory"
Observations of captive wolves in unnatural groupings led to “pack theory” –Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Theories vs Hypotheses

One of the biggest misunderstandings between science folk and lay folk is the definition of the word, “theory,” and here we are adding to that misunderstanding.

In science, the term “theory” has a specific meaning. It is much stronger than how we use the word in casual conversation.

From the National Academy of Sciences:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.

Heliocentricity is a theory although there is virtually no question that the earth revolves around the sun. Gravity is also a theory. So is learning theory (take that, you quadrants bashers!).

Actually, the scientific meaning of a “hypothesis” is closer to what people mean when they say in everyday settings that they have a theory, although it too has some specific criteria for usage.

Also from the National Academy of Sciences:

A hypothesis is a tentative statement about the natural world leading to deductions that can be tested. If the deductions are verified, it becomes more probable that the hypothesis is correct. If the deductions are incorrect, the original hypothesis can be abandoned or modified. Hypotheses can be used to build more complex inferences and explanations.

Both theories and hypotheses can be disproven, but not proven.

Pack Theory

So why are we still using the term “pack theory”? On the one hand a lot of us are trying to teach people the scientific definition of the word, “theory.” On the other we are referring to “pack theory,” which was never was a theory to begin with.

It was an initial idea and statement about the natural world, and maybe qualified as a hypothesis.

This post is not about the incorrectness of the pack hypothesis. If you are interested, here are two articles I wrote about that. There are some original sources at the bottom of the post as well.

This post is just a small rant about nomenclature and its effects on thinking.

In addition to “pack theory,” one can also see references to “alpha theory,” and “dominance theory,” the latter even in a publication by the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior.** So I think putting a lot of energy into trying to eradicate the terms is probably useless. But personally, I’m going to try to remember to call it “outdated pack hypothesis,” or even better, “pack nonsense.”

Hey, I’m Not the Only One!

I was wondering whether to post this. Figured it might appeal only to other word nerds, but I decided to put it out there anyway. I did one more Google search, and found out that I got scooped! The wonderful trainer and blogger Sam Tatters wrote about this in July 2013! Here is her piece: Where We’re Going Wrong.

Thanks, Sam! I think you were right on target, and more succinct than I was. And why am I not surprised to find the “awesome” Yvette Van Veen chiming in over there as well!

By the way, no disrespect meant to L. David Mech, who is a scientific hero as far as I’m concerned. His book came out of those early observations of captive wolves, and he has corrected the misinformation and is actively rectifying the incorrect application of those early ideas to wild wolves. Here are an article and a video he made.

Thanks for reading! So how are you going to refer to “pack stuff” now?

Wolves
Wolves: Do you think this is a family group? (Photo credit, Wikimedia Commons)

**Comments by a couple of readers made me realize that the term “dominance” is in a slightly different category from the other two, since it is defined and used in ethology. But since it also doesn’t mean what lay people generally think it means, I’m not going to write extensively about that here. Dr. Patricia McConnell has the creds to do so, so here is one of her articles. Thanks, Cynthia and Laura in the Canine Skeptics FaceBook group.

Coming up:

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8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales

8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales

As the great trainer Bob Bailey says, training is simple but not easy. The principles are very simple and straightforward, but actually applying them in practice can be very difficult.

I’ve mentioned many times that I am not a professional trainer. But I hang out with some phenomenal ones. Plus, I am a student of life and tend to do lots of observation of myself and others. (What, you had noticed?)  And I don’t mind sharing my own errors if it can help somebody along.

Here are eight of the top booboos in dog training. All of which I have done myself, and many of them on camera! (And guess what, I have 15-20 more! You can expect more posts on this if people enjoy this one.)

And by the way, these are errors made by trainers who are using the most humane methods they know and can learn. The list would be much different if it addressed mistakes made by trainers who make heavy use of aversives. I don’t want to write that list right now!

What Can Go Wrong?

(1) Allowing the dog to rehearse the behavior you’re trying to eliminate. One of my trainer friends says this is the #1 problem she runs into with her clients. A client will say, “I bought my dog a bed for his crate and he chewed it. I bought him another one and he chewed it. I bought him another one and he chewed that one, too. I’ve bought him five beds and he’s chewed them all.”  That dog is getting really skilled at chewing beds, and has found a way to occupy himself in his crate.

If a dog has a problem behavior, it’s because that behavior has been reinforced. (Chewing is fun for dogs!) Usually not deliberately by us, but reinforced nonetheless. So we don’t tend to “count” it in our minds. But it’s just as if we had given the dog a cookie every time he chewed the bed, or jumped on the couch or whatever. But if we want to teach them to do something different, we also need to prevent those fun rehearsals of the “wrong” behavior and stop that reinforcement.

Desirable door behavior
Desirable door behavior

For example, you want to train your dog not to crowd up to the back door and rush out when you open it. That behavior is reinforced every time she does it if you immediately let her outside. When you start to teach polite door manners, you doubtless start the training with an “easier” door. You practice with an interior door, and work on the behavior  you want. You reinforce with food.

Undesirable door behavior
Undesirable door behavior–see the linked video–>

But in the meantime, every time you take your dog into the back yard to potty, she continues to crowd up to the back door and rush out when you open it. Getting outside is obviously a potent reinforcer and nothing has happened to stop that. To get the new behavior in place at the back door, you will have to prevent your dog from practicing the old one. That can be a challenge without using aversives, but can be done. With three dogs, our back door behavior is a work in progress, but those bad habits do on occasion get reinforced. And reinforcement “on occasion” is enough to keep them alive and well.

The classic example of rehearsed behaviors and conflicting reinforcers is walking on a loose leash. If you let your dog pull you, using the same gear you use when trying to teach loose leash, that behavior gets reinforced every time that pulling gets the dog where he wants to go, just as purely as if you had given him a cookie for it. That’s why trainers always tell you to cease walking the dog or at least use completely different gear if you must walk the dog, if you are simultaneously trying to teach leash manners. You are shooting yourself in the foot otherwise.

(2) Lumping. Lumping means failing to break the behavior you are trying to teach into small enough steps. For instance, you are teaching your dog to get on a mat and lie down. Your dog is beginning to understand your cue. You stand right next to the mat and give the cue. Dog lies down. You stand two feet away from the mat and give the cue. The dog goes to the mat and lies down. You put the mat in the corner of the room, go back to the center of the room with your dog, and give the cue. Your dog says, “Huh?” Lots of misunderstandings between humans and dogs could be ameliorated if we just took enough baby steps when teaching a behavior. Here is a post about lumping, with a video starring my dog Zani, who lets her disapproval of my behavior be known.

Small black and tan colored hound looking at her trainer with her mouth open. There is a piece of tape on the wall behind her.
Zani says, “Quit that lumping!”

Zani can sit on a crate
Sitting on a crate was Zani’s idea

(3) Neglecting to generalize cued behaviors. Dogs are great discriminators. They notice every little thing in the environment. It’s all pertinent to them. They are not as good as we are at generalizing. And it is very very hard for us to get that through our human heads.

If a dog knows “sit” when in the kitchen facing east, she may not know it while standing on the piano bench in your front room facing north. And she almost definitely won’t know it if you lie down on the floor next to her or stand on your head before giving the cue. All along you thought she was responding to your verbal cue, but she actually was responding to the fact that she was standing in the kitchen facing east, and you have a clicker and treats, and you said a word (which turns out that it probably could have been any word). All of that was actually her cue. I have several movies showing dogs who respond incorrectly to a cue because of the human failure (um, mine) to help them generalize.

And here’s my moment to plug Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. The Training Levels are the best training program I have ever seen to build generalization into every step.

(4) And that leads to…not knowing what the dog’s cue actually is. It may not be what we think it is.  They are generally paying attention to our body language and props way more than we think. Almost all of us (border collie owners excepted, grin), think that our dogs understand verbal cues better than they actually do. I have lots of experience with this, having been blessed with two dogs who are probably less proficient than average at verbal cues. I have yet to teach them, despite many repetitions, some simple word discriminations that some breeds and individual dogs seem to pick up very fast. To really know whether your dog understands a verbal cue or not, you need not only to practice generalization, but get yourself out of the picture for the final exam. I have a fairly embarrassing post and video where I was trying to test my dog’s knowledge of the difference between her “crate” and “mat” cue. I didn’t realize until I saw the film that I was still cuing her with my body.

(5) Trying to train when dog is too stressed. Just about anybody who has gone to a dog training club has either done this or seen this. The dog is trying to take in this noisy, chaotic environment full of other people and dogs. Even if the dog is not scared of strange people or dogs, the noise and chaos make everything difficult. This is where it pays to know and observe your dog, and do some homework on dog body language.

It's not hard to tell if Clara is too stressed to train
It’s not hard to tell if Clara is too stressed to train

Here are some posts, photos, and videos of mine showing a stressed dog, a fearful dog, my own shut down dog, and some other shut down dogs. While some dogs can respond while stressed or fearful, a good teacher will help you work with your dog to get her comfortable in the environment before ever starting to teach “behaviors.” Most would agree that learning to be comfortable in a difficult environment is a more important lesson than learning to sit on cue. And it will really pay off in the long run.

(6) Not being aware of the dog’s responses. This is a more general version of #5. Once one starts learning about dog body language, it can be a revelation to watch videos of one’s own training sessions. You may learn that you are making your dog nervous when you ruffle his fur. Or that he ducks strongly away when you reach down to pat his head. You may learn that you are leaning far to much into your dog’s face. You may learn that you are unwittingly doing something to jazz up your dog when you are trying to teach a relaxed, duration behavior. Or like me, you may learn that your dogs are way more sound sensitive than you thought. (I had the camera on behind my back when I recorded this video.)

(7) Using a verbal cue too soon. I mean, we want to do it at the very beginning, and that’s exactly what not to do! It seems to be almost innate for us to assume that dogs do or “should” understand our own native human language. If you grew up in the “say ‘sit’ and push the dog’s butt down” generation, it is hard to imagine anything else. But remember, the word “sit” is a cue. It is a green light that says, “if you sit now, reinforcement is available.” But attaching that cue to the behavior is a latter step, not the first step. Chanting “Sit, sit, sit,” does not instruct your dog what to do. And doing the butt push move means that the first thing that Sit means is “Mom is about to push my butt down.”

The better way of looking at it, as Sue Ailsby describes it, is that we say to the dog, “That thing you are doing–we’re going to call it ‘Sit,’ OK?”

The first step is to get the dog sitting repeatedly. You can lure, capture, or shape. But it’s a good idea to keep your lip zipped and don’t let that cue come out. Some people say you shouldn’t use the cue until you are willing to be $100 that the dog will sit.

Here is a little video I made of Clara as a puppy. This is the very first time I had used a verbal cue for “down.” I had already gotten predictable and repeated downs by arranging the environment that way. Do you see how startled she is the first time I use it? It’s only the second verbal cue she has been exposed to. As far as she’s concerned, I have interrupted the game we were playing.

(Watching the video today makes me realize I know her better now. According to #6–watching the dog’s responses–I might have ended earlier. Her tail is wagging with a rather low carriage and she is working very hard for a wee one. She was more stressed than I would like.)

(8) Rate of reinforcement too low. “Rate of reinforcement” means the number of reinforcers per unit of time, for instance, per minute. When teaching a new behavior, and particularly to a dog who is new to training, it is desirable for the RoR to be very high. Dogs who know you have treats and are playing a training game but can’t figure out the rules of the game tend to get frustrated, lose interest, or even wander off. It is our job as trainers to arrange the teaching so that the pupil can have a high success rate and therefore a high rate of reinforcement.

Here’s a video of some behavior drills I did with three of my dogs. The highest rate of of reinforcement was in Zani’s first session: 12 treats in 43 seconds. That’s a treat about every 3.5 seconds, or 17 treats per minute. All of the other sessions shown came to a treat about every 5 seconds, which would be 12 treats per minute. Many of the behaviors had a little duration on purpose, so that’s not bad. I checked the video of puppy Clara I linked to in #7 above, and I delivered a treat about every 5 seconds in that one as well.

By the way, I made this list of booboos before I realized that I had examples of so many of them! How about you? Have any suggestions for my next post on this? Bonus points if you’ll step forward and show an example!

Other Resources

Here are a few other articles on common errors. I got a few ideas from them, but most of the above were from my own head and some trainer friends’ heads.

This post is part of a series:

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Calm Submissive

Calm Submissive

According to the well known TV personality (I won’t call him a trainer) Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” is a very desirable state for your dog to be in.

A small dog is lying on her right side in the dirt. Her legs, belly, and face are tan. She is black elsewhere. Her legs are stretched out in front of her and her head is on the ground. At first glance she looks relaxed, but her front legs are actually stiff and one is being held off the ground.
Is Zani calm? Check out her left front leg before you decide.**

OK, I don’t even want to begin to address the word submissive. So far I’m just thinking about “calm.”

Here is a dictionary definition:

Free from excitement or passion; tranquil.

A black dog with tan on her face and front legs is seen to be sitting. She is looking down.
Zani shut down

My friend Diana and I were discussing seeing the difference between a shut-down dog and a calm dog. I have some video footage, soon to be published, of Zani in a shut-down state. (It was long ago and she had been rude to little Cricket, who snarked at her. For whatever reason, that time it upset Zani greatly. She shut down and tuned the world out for about half an hour afterwards.) Diana said it would be great to contrast the shut down state with photos or video of Zani when she is calm, so as to help demonstrate the difference.

So I started thinking how I would film Zani being “calm.”

First of all, I realized calm is not a behavior. It is an emotional state, but it can sometimes be observed by physiological signs. I would say they include:

  • slow to moderate heart rate
  • slow to moderate breathing
  • relaxed muscles or muscles being used smoothly
  • lack of signs of arousal or excitement

I tried to list positive signs first, but it is easiest to see calm as a lack, yes? Like the definition: free from excitement. In a dog we might notice:

  • lack of barking
  • lack of panting
  • lack of excitement
  • lack of trembling
  • lack of running around
  • lack of jumping on people or chewing the furniture
  • …ad infinitum.

Calm as Contrast

I’ve also realized that in English, “calm” is frequently used as a contrast word. What picture does the following sentence bring to mind?

Henry calmly got out his wallet and removed his driver’s license.

What did you visualize? I bet 9 out of 10 people visualized Henry being stopped by a police officer. The word “calm” in such a sentence would be emphasizing that Henry is cool under pressure, and/or innocent of any law breaking.

Did anybody visualize Henry lying on a couch, watching TV and drinking beer, reaching idly into his wallet to take a look at his license or show it to his girlfriend?  <<crickets chirping>>

Yet even if Henry were a really coolheaded guy, he would probably be much more calm in that situation than when being confronted by a police officer.

The more I think about it, the more examples I can think of where “calm” is used to in a situation where there is something exciting or stressful going on. “Julie was calm in the face of danger.” “David is calm under pressure.” We even say that dogs give “calming signals.” They are generally stress indicators.  Calm is usually noted as a (desirable) reaction to something stressful. Whereas the word relaxed, though related, describes a physical/mental state only and doesn’t necessarily imply as much about the surrounding environment. So it’s kind of hard to photograph “calm.” It’s comparative.

a sable colored dog and a smaller, black and tan dog are on the top step of a porch. They are both looking to the left. The sable dog's commissure is pushed a little forward. The smaller dog is just looking.
Zani and Summer look at a cat

Here’s a “calm by contrast” photo. Summer and Zani are looking at a cat. Summer is starting an agonistic pucker of her mouth and is standing up. Zani, by contrast, is sitting. She is watching attentively but not braced as readily for action. She is more calm than Summer. But is she “calm”? Maybe about as “calm” as Henry was when taking his driver’s license out for the cop.

Calmness in Dogs

At first I couldn’t decide whether to say Zani is calm most of the time or never. In a dog as well adjusted as she is, one tends to take a certain amount of calmness for granted.

But actually, living with Zani around the house, I would rarely call her demeanor “calm.” She’s either asleep, or she is active. When she’s interacting with the other dogs or me she is alert, in the game,  responsive, high energy, even wired. And it was pretty telling that I couldn’t find many pictures or videos in which she looks “calm.”

We Glupling Trainers tend to work on calmness with dogs for whom overstimulated emotional states are a problem. In other words, it’s for their benefit at least as much as it is for ours. My dog Summer is reactive. My dog Clara is feral and also easily overaroused. These dogs need help being calm. So we practice things like Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol and straight relaxation, as in this video I made with Clara.

I’ve always been sure Zani, like any dog, would benefit from those exercises, but frankly, it hasn’t been high on my list. That is, until I recorded a bunch of footage of the dogs doing crate and mat exercises this morning. From watching the recordings, I saw that I have probably underestimated the stress in Zani’s life. Up till now, I haven’t worked on calm with her because she is a trouble-free dog for me. I’m feeling a bit like a self-centered jerk after watching that footage. Some dogs are amazing for putting up with us at all. She is very sensitive. But that’s a topic for my next installment.

Here are the “calmest” pics I could find of Zani, but in the ones where she is cocking her head, she is working me for a treat. She tends to snap to attention when I get the camera out.

Cesar is Confused

Isn’t that a nice way to put it?

Cesar often calls dogs “relaxed” or “calm submissive” when they are motionless but frightened out of their wits, as indicated by trembling, stiffness, rolling eyes, or the release of urine. You can see him do that in this video analysis of “Showdown with Holly,” if you can stomach it. At 3:19, he says, “See the relaxation.” I think he says that basically because Holly is lying down. It’s clear when the camera turns her way that Holly is far from relaxed. But Cesar is not famous for his ability to read dog body language.

For Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” means, “I can do stuff to this dog and it won’t react.” It is equivalent to what we would call “shut down.”

In contrast, the most important state for my dogs to be in, at any time, is “happy.” After that, I value alert, responsive, cooperative. Excited some of the time, calm when appropriate.

As I write this, Zani is sprawled at my feet in the position I call “flounder,” as in the very first photo at the top. She’s lying flat on her side with her head down. Is she calm? No. She is completely alert, offering that funny behavior, trying to get me to give her a treat. And that’s perfectly OK with me. For now. But I need to observe and analyze just how much of the time she is “working.” Maybe I, too, have been  guilty of assuming that a dog that doesn’t bother me is “calm” a lot more often than she really is.

I really thank Diana for her part in helping me to see this.

How about you? Can you define “calm”? How would you take a picture of it? Have you observed or filmed your dogs being calm?

Thanks for viewing! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** A note about the first picture. This is not an appeasement display. But neither is Zani relaxed. She is offering that behavior because she thought it up and I have reinforced it. You can see that she is holding her right front leg stiffly out from her body. Her eyes are staring straight ahead and not soft. She is working for a treat.

Est-ce que votre chien veut VRAIMENT être caressé ?

Est-ce que votre chien veut VRAIMENT être caressé ?

Picture of a small black and tan dog leaning away and giving "whale eye," where a small crescent of white shows at the edge of her eyes, as a person reaches out to pet her.
Zani dit NON.

Pour mes visiteurs français.

Est-ce que votre chien veut VRAIMENT être caressé ? (lien)

En anglais

Merci à Stéphanie Michenaud et Nathalie Perret du Cray de Balade Ton Chien pour leur aide.

Note to all my international readers and viewers: I will be happy to make more translations of this movie, if you want to help.  Thanks to Stéphanie and Nathalie, if anyone wants to volunteer to translate, I can send a text document that has all the English from the movie, with spaces left for translation. It takes me only a couple of hours to change the text in the movie, and I can usually do it within a week or two of receiving the translation, depending on what else is in the queue. Hoping to get some takers!

And of course if you want to translate any other movie or post I would be flattered and will work with you on that.

Thanks for watching!

Merci d’avoir regardé !

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2013

Retomar o significado: Generalização

Retomar o significado: Generalização

Para os meus leitores e seguidores portugueses.

Retomar o significado: Generalização (link)

Em Inglês

Obrigada Vitor Faibam e Claudia Estanislau pela ajuda na tradução para a versão portuguesa.

Small black and tan dog sits by her trainer. There is a fire extinguisher in the foreground.

Note to all my international readers and viewers: I will be happy to make more translations of this movie, if you want to help.  Thanks to Vitor and Claudia, if anyone wants to volunteer to translate, I can send a text document that has all the English from the movie, with spaces left for translation. It takes me only a couple of hours to change the text in the movie, and I can usually do it within a week or two of receiving the translation, depending on what else is in the queue. Hoping to get some takers!

And of course if you want to translate any other movie or post I would be flattered and will work with you on that.

Thanks for watching!

Obrigada por assistirem!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Being Tough

Being Tough

One of the toughest dogs I know
One of the toughest dogs I know

I think one of the most interesting criticisms of force free training by trainers who use aversives is that we aren’t “tough enough” with our dogs.

What does “being tough” actually mean here and why should it be so laudable? I think it’s fair to say that folks touting toughness are touting punishment. Leash pops, shock collars, and a mindset that says the dog must be shown who’s boss.

Does “being tough” take special skill or practice?

Except in rare cases where a rather small person has a very large dog, we are generally a lot bigger than our dogs. We have a lot more tools at our disposal. We have the ability to control their environment, feed them or not, contain them, and make all their life decisions for them.

Yet it’s thought to be important to get tough or dominant with one’s dog whether you have a Chihuahua or an Akita; whether the dog is aggressive to humans or you are just trying to teach her to sit.

Folks promoting this approach often have a jeering attitude to trainers who choose less aversive methods. We’ve all heard it; I need not repeat it here. It seems to me they are claiming some sort of superior, moral high ground. They are the “real” dog trainers. And we clicker trainers, force free trainers, humane hierarchy trainers, least-invasive-minimally-aversive trainers, behavior analysis folks, and trainers who just want learning to be fun for both parties, whatever we call ourselves: we live in some sort of lala land and get walked all over by our dogs.

I’ve got news.

Being tough with a dog is easy.

It is not a skill that is available only to some elite group of wise people. It’s a reflection of our culture and how many of us were raised. It’s a meme that resonates seductively. It’s not some Masonic secret.

I’m not saying it takes no skill to train with punishment. Using any of the quadrants of operant conditioning well takes skill. But that’s not what the meme is about. And when you can squash down behavior in a crude way, you have less motivation to develop those skills.

It’s physically easy for humans to hurt and apply force to dogs. If you aren’t physically big enough, you can go to your local big box pet supply store and buy any number of devices to hurt your dog or grossly curtail her mobility. And because they have evolved as our companions for tens of thousands of years, they generally don’t fight back, and when they do, they often pull their punches. As horrifying as it is to read of maulings and even killings of humans by dogs, it is still exceedingly rare, given their numbers in our society and the mismatch between human and dog body language and communication. They are amazingly tolerant of the things we do.

More important, in addition to the physical ease, most of us have been psychologically groomed to punish as well. Punishing comes pretty naturally to us, I’m afraid. Our approach to many problems, not just with dogs, tends to be: how do I stop this? We notice what is wrong. We notice what we don’t like. Then we try to stop it. Here’s a post about fighting that tendency.

The corollary is that training a dog in a minimally aversive way takes thought, planning, and understanding. For many people it requires overcoming what feel like instinctual responses. Manipulating the environment and being mindful of our own responses can be hard work at first. Leaving the punishment mindset behind requires an epiphany of sorts. It requires a different way of thinking.

The Science of Dogs wrote a great post about Cesar Milan called “My Way is Not The Only Way.” This writer really put it better than I have here. Even Cesar acknowledges that there are other ways than his to train dogs. The writer asks, with very persuasive examples, why then, if there are alternatives, he chooses to hurt dogs.

I’m preaching to the choir, I know. I try not to write pointless rants or whines or be unnecessarily divisive. But I do have a final point here, thanks to a great friend and training buddy, who helped me with this post when it was all over the place. She said it so well I’m going to quote her:

In the end, positive trainers are MORE accountable for their training skills. Punishment based trainers get to blame the dog (he’s dominant, giving you the paw, blowing you off).  With punishment training you don’t have to accept responsibility for the dog’s behavior or work to improve your observation and timing skills. Just blame the dog.

In other words, people seeking to use the least aversive methods with their dogs are tough after all. We are tough on ourselves.

Pack Leader

Pack Leader

If you use a search engine and search for “pack leader,” the first page of hits looks something like this (taken from actual Google page).

  • Establishing Yourself as Pack Leader
  • PACK LEADERS – Canine Advice, Tips, and Tutorials
  • How to Be the Pack Leader
  • Labeling Machine Manufacturer and Supplier in Taiwan (yes, an actual business called www.packleader.com is 4th in the list)
  • PackLeader Dog Training
  • How to Control Your Dog’s Behavior by Becoming Pack Leader
  • Being a good alpha (pack leader)
  • Alpha Dog, Pack Leader, Dog Growling, Dog Bitting (sic)
  • Be the Pack Leader
  • Pack Leader Academy

If you limit the search to videos, you will get a page full of similar links, with the exception of two that are tied to a video game.

This despite the complete, thorough, absolute debunking of the whole pack theory approach in dog training.

Picture of red chow dog. Text reads: Hi I'm Buffy. My food guarding, object guarding, stranger aggression and dog-dog aggression were all modified using undergraduate level animal learning principles. What the hell is a "pack leader?"
Poster by eminent dog trainer and author Jean Donaldson, used with permission

Pack theory goes something like this:

  1. Dogs are like wolves.
  2. Wolves form hierarchical packs with a rigid status hierarchy and vie for position within the pack.
  3. Therefore any behavior your dog does that you don’t like means that your dog is trying to raise his status in the pack, with the ultimate goal of dominating you, your family, and any other dogs.

Every one of the numbered points is wrong.

1. Like wolves. Dogs and wolves can interbreed, but have followed separate evolutionary paths for tens of thousands of years, and behavioral differences between the two groups are both obvious and have been shown in studies. Here are a published paper and a post that highlight just two of these differences.

Are Dogs Pack Animals? by Jean Donaldson includes observations of populations of feral dogs. It has long been observed that although wolves hunt cooperatively in family groups, feral dogs are scavengers and have much more fluid and loosely knit relationships with each other.

The Genomic Signature of Dog Domestication Reveals Adaptation to a Starch-Rich Diet by Eric Axxelson was published in Nature in January 2013 and describes an evolutionary fork in the road between dogs and wolves. Here is an article that is accessible for free that elaborates on that research: Agriculture and parting from wolves shaped dog evolution, study finds.

2. Hierarchical packs and social climbing. The initial studies on wolves were performed on captive groups of wolves. Wolves in the wild tend to form cooperative family groups run by mom and dad, not hierarchical packs. This article: Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf? elaborates on that. It was written by L. David Mech, one of the original researchers who initially used the term “alpha.” He does’t anymore, and points out that no serious wolf researchers do. So he should know.

3. Dominance. The term “dominant” has a specific meaning in animal behavior. It has to do with the animal who gets access to a desired resource at a particular point in time. So if my dog Zani (the smallest of my dogs in training) walks over and sticks her nose in Summer’s butt while Summer is visiting me, and Summer moves away, Zani was “dominant” with regard to access to me at that moment in time. (And she does do this.) Dominance is not a character trait. It is a label used in an interaction. Summer might be “dominant” later regarding a toy they both wanted. (Also note that Zani’s behavior would not fit most dog people’s definition of a dominant behavior. Dominance in an interaction often does not include force.)

OK, with that out of the way, the vast majority of day to day dog behaviors that annoy us are methods for the dogs to get stuff that we or the environment have inadvertently reinforced. Dogs do what works. They are neither little ambitious humans in furry suits nor little robots; they are keen observers and learn what they need to do to get what they want.

If these “bad” behaviors are supposed to be all about the dog’s ambitions, why are they so dead easy to modify with environmental changes and positive reinforcement? A junior high school student who has taken a class about learning theory, with a hands-on laboratory component, could walk into most houses and could get a friendly dog to sit instead of jumping on her within 5 minutes, and could get the basics of “leave-it” in place in another 5 or 10.

Dog behaviors that include aggression take more time and care to address, (don’t send your junior high school kid; for that you probably need the undergrad college work that Jean Donaldson refers to, and a few years of experience) but the methods that work reliably to change the dog’s behavior are not force based. And the old chestnuts such as alpha rolls, hanging, throw chains, and “in your face” scruff shakes are great at either exacerbating aggression or throwing the dog into complete fear shutdown.

To the pack theory believers, everything is about (this misunderstood version of) dominance. A few years back, well-known trainer Helix Fairweather compiled a list of all the things her trainers had been told or had said were “dominant” behavior by dogs. It would be funny if it weren’t sad. (Eats too fast? Licks the bottom of my shoes?)

Enough Talk; How About the Video!

I’m not going to write more about that since it has been ably done all over the place. Perhaps I’ll put some links in later. Mostly, this post is a showcase for this wonderful video: 21 great trainers with credentials ranging from great to incredible, all saying simply that they don’t need to be the pack leader. And neither do we. I found it incredibly warming to watch.

Back to the search engines. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some good information came up when people searched for “pack leader”? We could make that happen. Share the video. Like the video. Blog about the video. Link to the video.

That’s what I’m doing.

Here is another article I wrote on pack theory, again featuring the above video, but it also has a list of resources on the topic. Perhaps good to send to someone who needs to be persuaded.

P.S. Special Invitation: Lots of folks are making posters similar to Jean’s above. Please feel free to post them on eileenanddogs on FaceBook!

Addendum 3/6/13. Because of comments from an astute reader, I have changed the resources in #1 above about differences between dogs and wolves. I originally cited a study about dogs, not wolves, being able to follow human communication better, but that has since been called into question. Thank you Åsa!

Coming up soon:

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